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Household Archaeology in Ancient Israel and Beyond

Household Archaeology in Ancient Israel and Beyond

Edited by Assaf Yasur-Landau, Jennie R. Ebeling, and Laura B. Mazow (Culture and History of the Near East 50). Pp. vii + 452, figs. 85, tables 12. Brill, Leiden 2011. $212. ISBN 978-90-04-20625-0 (cloth).

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The present volume grew out of a roundtable discussion at the 2008 meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston. At that time, household archaeology was still a largely unrecognized subfield in Near Eastern archaeology, without proper methodological approaches for this region. It is no coincidence that one of the first volumes with a sole focus on household archaeology in the Near East that has been published in the last few years stems from research undertaken in the southern Levant. A large number of excavated sites with extensive settlement remains document the ever-present interest in biblical archaeology and the investigation of the different ethnicities in this region in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. Understanding Canaanite, Philistine, and Israelite culture and society very much relies on analyzing the private sphere and thus the realm of the household. Whereas the opposing entities—Israelites and Philistines—attracted much attention, the facets of Canaanite society are still largely unknown. The investigation of aspects such as family, kinship, gender, household production, and cults has dominated studies on households in this region. The defining architectural element for the Israelite culture, the so-called four-room house, has been much debated and is the focus of most of the contributions in household studies. Constructed in mudbrick and stone, this house type is frequently preserved in impressive remains at multiple sites. Destruction levels resulting from military conflicts (but also accidents and natural disasters) add to the favorable archaeological context of conserving finds in their supposedly final place of use or deposit. But excavations in this region are also at the forefront of innovative research agendas implementing new techniques and scientific analyses, often in a concerted effort with the archaeological work. Institutes such as the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel) provide well-trained staff and on-site laboratories for the simultaneous investigations (e.g., of micro-objects, ecofacts, or residues) during the excavations. In the case of domestic assemblages, this approach, which is subsumed under the term “microarchaeology,” is worthwhile to pursue, since the results can give insight into past activities within the domestic sphere that are otherwise invisible to the excavator’s eye. Such studies expand our understanding of ancient households to a great extent and can thus contribute to the growing interest and research undertaken in the field of household archaeology.

The volume under review presents a broad overview from a large number of sites in the southern Levant where archaeological projects feature household archaeology, as well as the reinterpretation of old material, in their respective research agendas. With a particular focus on ancient Israel, the different chapters cover the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and Iron Ages I and II. Methodological issues are addressed in the first part of the book, followed by case studies from the different periods, and rounded off by a number of papers on the specific aspects of household cults. Discussed in this order in the introduction, the different papers are unfortunately not subsumed under chapters, which would have been useful for a first overview. Although the title suggests the inclusion of studies from neighboring regions, this, strictly speaking, only accounts for the papers on Tiryns and the southeastern Anatolian site of Zincirli/Sam’al, which represents the northern Levant.

Hardin’s revision of the current state of household archaeology in the Levant, including the history of this new subfield in archaeology and methodological steps that were taken over the years, forms a good introduction to the volume. The subsequent papers concentrate on case studies concerned with either the meticulous analysis of a single building, its specific architectural layout and spatial distribution of finds, and the application of microarchaeology, or the role of households on the regional level and interactions with the local power base. All papers are notably aimed at extrapolating the broader picture of development and changes in society on the macro level from the micro-level study of one or multiple households.

A number of papers highlight the impact of studying households for a better understanding of Canaanite society in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. Marom and Zuckerman examine the benefit of a zooarchaeological study at Tel Hazor to learn more about everyday life at a site so important for this region in the second millennium B.C.E. Yasur-Landau illustrates the interaction and tension of domestic groups and emerging rulership at the dawn of urbanization in Middle Bronze I. His comparison with Middle Kingdom Egypt and the authorities’ influence on urbanism reflected by state-planned model communities will need to be revised in light of recent investigations of this phenomenon (e.g., M. Müller, “Late Middle Kingdom Society in a Neighborhood of Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris (Egypt),” in M. Müller, ed., Household Studies in Complex Societies: [Micro] Archaeological and Textual Approaches [Chicago (forthcoming)]). (Yasur-Landau misplaces the Teaching for Merikare, a Middle Kingdom narrative, in the Second Intermediate Period instead of the First Intermediate Period.) Two papers, Panitz-Cohen on Late Bronze Age Tel Batash and Singer-Avitz on Iron Age Tel Beersheba, stress the difficulty of assessing household wealth by different factors such as the size of the house and the number and quality of vessels found therein. A number of papers dealing with Iron Age sites (Ilan, Gadot, Brody, Faust) discuss different settlement layouts and the dominance of nuclear or extended families within the respective community. By stressing the close relationship between household and migration archaeology, Ben-Shlomo presents an interesting study on the immigration of the Philistines to the southern coast of Israel and argues for an eastern Mediterranean koine with a mutual transfer of ideas and peoples. The difficult task of defining households’ cultic activities is the focus of a number of other articles (Hitchcock, Nakhai, Press).

As the editors rightly mention in the introduction (3), an important aspect of household archaeology is, however, not adequately included in the various site analyses. The limiting factor of site-formation processes, which in so many cases hinder a functional analysis of spaces/rooms in domestic buildings, most often seem to be left unnoticed for their inconvenience. Since site-formation processes before, during, and after the abandonment of a building leave us with so many uncertainties about the actual position of artifacts, a functional analysis can only be achieved in a combined investigation of the archaeological, historical, and scientific record. In the same way, a consideration of the findspot of artifacts in the houses in terms of vertical stratigraphy is often lacking within the different case studies, which leaves the reader suspicious that all finds were allegedly recorded on the floors of the building. Especially when working with old material, registration of finds is mostly inadequate in terms of artifact position and thus often not feasible for a functional analysis. An informative approach in this respect is Shahack-Gross’ consideration of the identification of floors during the excavation, which often relies on the excavator’s experience in combination with specific floor treatments. Her microscopic analysis of supposed plaster floors in a room of the so-called Monumental Building at Iron Age Tel Dor revealed that the “plaster” was actually the result of activity remains composed of mostly grass phytoliths and thus the remnants of livestock dung on top of the actual floor.

The present volume is a most welcome contribution to the growing field of household archaeology in the Near East (two other recent conferences on household archaeology in the Near East were held at the University of Utah in 2009, published in B.J. Parker and C.P. Foster, eds., New Perspectives on Household Archaeology [Winona Lake, Ind. 2012], and at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 2013 [Müller (forthcoming)]). This volume not only helps shape the methodological principles of a new subdiscipline of archaeological research, it also highlights the advanced state of household archaeology in the Levant. Scholars specializing in neighboring regions have already recognized this desideratum for their respective disciplines (e.g., K.T. Glowacki and N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, eds., Stega: The Archaeology of Houses and Households in Ancient Crete [Princeton 2011]), and it is hoped that publications of this quality will inspire further research in this important field.

Miriam Müller
The Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Book Review of Household Archaeology in Ancient Israel and Beyond, edited by Assaf Yasur-Landau, Jennie R. Ebeling, and Laura B. Mazow

Reviewed by Miriam Müller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Muller

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